I’m often asked, “What value does Virtual Reality (VR) bring to education?”
To which I typically reply, “Equity.” While most, including my immediate peers, usually squint and ask, “How so?” there are currently a myriad of VR experiences that can bring equity to education where no other tool has been able to.
Research completed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, led by Professor Sean Reardon, largely addressed the inequities in education that challenge students daily.
“The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district,” said Reardon. “Nonetheless, poverty is not destiny: There are districts with similarly low-income student populations where academic performance is higher than others. We can—and should—learn from such places to guide community and school improvement efforts in other communities.”
So, how can VR bring equity to education?
Regarding virtual reality in education, most educators have heard of Google Expeditions by now. At just over three years old, Google Expeditions has paved the way for immersive education in schools. Using mobile VR technology, three degrees of freedom (3DOF), students are guided through a virtual tour. The tour includes teacher resources in the form of discussion points, and the ability for the teacher to control what the students are seeing while the students still have control over the angle and direction of their focus in the 360, VR virtual field trip.
Is this low tech? Sort of. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t such a huge fan of “virtual field trips” initially. It wasn’t because I’m a hater, it was because I was narrow-minded and enthusiastic about all of the other amazing immersive VR experiences coming out.
However, earlier this year, I had the pleasure of watching a recording of Jeremy Bailenson speaking about his book, Experience on Demand (which is amazing, by the way). He stated four reasons why we should use VR and those were:
- It’s impossible
- It’s counterproductive
- It’s expensive/rare
- It’s dangerous
It immediately clicked for me. Depending on the situation, Virtual Reality can add tremendous value and even provide equity where there once was none.
When does VR provide benefits for students?
Say, for example, in your situation, which includes cost and proximity, you have easy access to go to the zoo. In this case, a virtual field trip might not be a worthy use case for VR. Instead you can physically take a field trip to the zoo. If your situation is such that it’s cost prohibitive, far, etc., then a virtual field trip to a zoo is a worthwhile experience.
Generally speaking, access to a zoo falls largely into the category of funding. If a school felt there was value in taking students to a zoo and money was no object, they could fly a class to their zoo of choice. If the research that Reardon conducted is true, then this lack of funding results in a lack of experiences for students and would likely translate into lower test scores within that school.
What about the impossible?
It’s not possible for us to revisit World War II and speak to Holocaust victims. Yes, there are museums, and there are still some schools who have access to survivors that visit and share their first-hand accounts. But this invaluable experience isn’t something that every school has access to. Programs like New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) exist to archive and bring Holocaust survivor testimony to people, most importantly schools. This brings equity by creating this experience.
Lastly, explaining the benefits of the counterproductive.
I love the idea of bringing the best of the best to everyone, anywhere, anytime. Programs like Engage and Rumii offer educator-focused collaborative VR learning environments. Imagine a lecture hall where all of the participants and the presenter are in VR. Think back to “Ready Player One,” a futuristic novel set in 2045, where nearly everyone constantly lives in VR. In the book, there is a planet within VR called Ludus, where all of the schools are located.
In the book, Ernest Cline describes in detail what the educational system on Ludus looks like. He describes a flexible and customizable learning environment, one that I think could bring equity to learning, whether you’re connecting from an affluent or impoverished neighborhood. He describes that teachers can instantly take students on interactive virtual field trips, which provide high levels of immersion translating into better understanding of the subject.
The counterproductive involves learning a powerful lesson that you wouldn’t want to do out in the real world. For example, seeing the effects climate change up close, or learning about the mistakes of the past by seeing them unfold in front of you. From the example of “Ready Player One,” we can also imagine that students had access to visit historical events in high fidelity and full immersion. Imagine too, the possibly of constructing new outcomes with “artificially intelligent virtual interaction,” an experience that would place you in a historic place and time. You could interact with and examine how different choices might have changed the outcome of history.
Hopefully, you can see why I’m so excited for Virtual Reality in Education.
Dropping into VR provides a real world, immersive experience that links key critical core senses together. When hearing, sight, and touch are linked, the subconscious mind cannot distinguish the experience as fake and thus strong memories are created. This ability to create memories from experiences that are typically impossible is the power that VR yields. So with VR experiences like NDT, virtual field trips to zoos, and collaborative learning environments like Engage and Rumii, we can bring equitable experiences to education that could ultimately provide not just higher test scores, but increased opportunity, knowledge, and most importantly, inspiration to all students.